Ordinary magic

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You don’t have to do something extraordinary for it to be wonderful. There is magic in everyday things: a story, fresh flowers, a smile.

This week I’m remembering that I don’t have to quit everything and go travelling to have a great life. Happiness is much more about perspective than circumstance.

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What being ALIVE means to me

This post is part of the ALIVE in Berlin Blog Tour, which is spreading the power of ALIVENESS to the masses. Alive in Berlin is a global gathering devoted to personal transformation that takes place on the 30th and 31st of May 2014 in Europe’s most exciting cityThe event will bring together world-class experts, visionaries and change makers from a variety of communities and disciplines. Together, we’ll explore the common threads that connect us and make us come alive. To learn more and join us, click here.

If you’d asked me what makes me come alive a few days ago I would have said something different to what I’m about to say now. In the middle of a hectic week of parties, gigs and lunches with old friends I would have said: “Inspiring people, amazing music and great wine.” These things will still sometimes make me feel at the top of the world, but after a solid six days of them you can start to feel the opposite of alive. Today, I feel alive again because of ten hours sleep, a five mile run and all day by myself to think and to write.

So, to recap, what being alive means to me is: partying all night but getting loads of sleep, being around great people but spending time by myself, indulging in rich food and alcohol but eating light meals and running a lot.

Yes, you heard that right. What being alive means to me is a lot of contradictions, because life is messy and confusing. But if you don’t let this bother you too much, it can also be a hell of a lot of fun.

Part of the fun for me is about learning about myself and what makes me come alive. By making a note of when I feel most inspired I’ve been able to change my life to include more of these things, and less of the other stuff.

Some things that make me feel alive are:

  • Realising that I can make something I thought I’d have to buy. For me, craft is massively empowering. That feeling of having made your own necklace, dress, scarf or lampshade: something that’s uniquely you. Something that you haven’t had to rely on the exploitative practices of a corporation for, or made to feel as though you’re the wrong body shape because it doesn’t quite fit properly.
  • Hanging out with a true friend. You know the one, where you can talk for hours and still not want to go home. One of those friends who inspires you, makes you laugh more than anyone you know, who is there for you when things go wrong and celebrating alongside you when they go right. You always leave thinking “Why don’t we do this more often?”
  • Finding the answer to something I’ve been mulling over for a while. I’ve learnt not to panic about not knowing the answer to a question: what I want to wear to an event, what I’m going to blog about next week, what I want my tattoo to look like, how I feel about a particular person, whether I should apply for a different job. Whatever the question, I know I can’t rush the answer and I know I can’t listen to anybody but my own intuition. I might not know what to do right away but if I give myself enough thinking time it’ll suddenly come to me –  in the shower, on a run, or first thing in the morning – and the “that’s it!” moment makes me come alive.
  • Running further than I’ve ever run before (and enjoying it). After a few years of running about four miles three times a week I’ve started to push myself further. Sure, it might be more difficult, but the feeling of having run further than I’ve ever run in my life before (and thought I would be able to) far outweighs any physical discomfort.
  • Hearing that first guitar chord of a favourite song. Whether I’m in the audience, in my car or dancing in my kitchen.
  • Stepping out of the airport or train station into a new city. I love the feeling of opportunity that travel brings: the chance to explore a new place, meet new people and try new food.

As some of the things that make me feel alive things contradict each other, I’ve learnt to balance them. I had a busy social week last week, so this week I’m planning to spend more time alone: reading, creating, and going to bed early. It might not be sound very cool but being cool isn’t what being alive means to me. Being alive is knowing myself, embracing opportunities, being okay with not knowing all the answers, and most of all enjoying the ride.

Some things to do in London

1. Drink chai latte in a trendy cafe in Shoreditch. Worry that enjoying this makes you a hipster. Get told that dating a boy with a sleeve of video game tattoos means you’re already there.

2. Think you can walk across the city in the same way you can if you want to get to the other side of Oxford. Walk for an hour, get no closer to where you want to go. Get on a tube anyway.

View from the flat, and some of the vehicles that stopped me sleeping.

View from the flat, and some of the vehicles that stopped me sleeping.

3. Be kept awake all night by the sound of traffic. Seriously, do people never stop going places round here? It’s 3am: stop driving.

This mirrors my own thoughts about food.

This mirrors my own thoughts about food.

4. Visit the Vikings: life and legend at the British Museum. Lose concentration and start thinking about lunch. Discover that people have been doing this forever. (This point sells the exhibition short. It’s actually really good: you should go. If you want a better write up, read the thoughts of the person I saw it with).

Harriet takes a break from taking photographs to be in one.

Harriet takes a break from taking photographs to be in one.

5. Be tourists by walking for hours taking pictures of the outside of everything, but not paying to go inside. Only go into the National Gallery to use the toilet.

Apparently this means wife cake (hurrah for Cantonese speaking boyfriends).

Apparently this means wife cake (hurrah for Cantonese speaking boyfriends).

6. Go to Chinatown and eat the funniest sounding pastry you can find.

7. Get on the bus back to Oxford because there is no place like home.

In which I feel an undeserved sense of achievement for catching a train

Following a new year’s resolution to write more, I asked some of my friends what I should write about. One suggestion was to write about the most interesting or challenging person I meet each week. I’ve extended this to include challenging circumstances, so here’s a story about my car not starting.

It’s amazing how much of my life I live on autopilot. Yesterday morning I brushed my teeth, picked up my bags and headed out to my car. I sat down, turned the key and… nothing happened. I lie, a horrible grating noise happened. But the engine didn’t start. It took me a couple of seconds to comprehend this. I tried again. No engine. Damn. Now what?

I have an ex-boyfriend who used to buy cars on ebay for such low prices that anyone with any common sense would know there was something wrong with them, so I have a lot of experience of jump starting engines. Only this time there was nobody to push. I try to think of someone in Oxford who I know well enough to call and ask them to help me start my car in the pouring rain. I can’t think of anybody. I feel briefly sorry for myself before realising that as the radio started it’ll be a bigger problem than the battery anyway.

I look through the owners manual and find ‘If the engine won’t start.’ It recommends that I contact the nearest Hyundai dealership. I take out my phone and google ‘Getz 1.1 won’t start.’ The internet doesn’t suggest anything that doesn’t involve waiting for new parts to arrive: I have to be at my Grandma’s birthday meal in about five hours. I open the bonnet and stare blankly at the engine for a few minutes. It dawns on me that it’s actually raining quite a lot. I get back into the car and do what any straight thinking capable adult would do: I phone my mum.

“Hello?” My sister answers the phone.

“Is Mum there?” I ask.

“Erm no, she’s at work. What’s up?”

“Well my car won’t start,” I begin. “So I suppose I was phoning to ask if she had any ideas.” There’s a silence, in which my faith in this plan all but disappears. “And I guess to say that I’ll be arriving a bit later than I originally said.”

“Oh, okay. Are you going to be alright?”

“Yeah. I’ll probably just jump on a train. See you later.”

I sit in the car a few minutes longer while I muster the enthusiasm to go out into the rain. My phone rings as I am getting my bags out of the boot. My sister has apparently decided that this is an emergency worth phoning Mum at work for.

“Mum says to ring Dad.”

I pause to consider what my father could do to help from behind a desk in Gloucester, before starting to haul my bags to the train station. About three minutes down the road I realise that, used to being insulated by my car, I’m not really dressed for this weather. My dress and tights are soaked through and my new, higher-than-usual heeled boots are starting to hurt my feet. I get on a bus.

At the station I find there’s a train to Hereford leaving in five minutes time. This is good, I think, things are working out well. As I settle down on the train I feel as though I am starting am adventure. Not knowing how I will get from the train’s destination to where I actually want to go reminds me of travelling in India and I become a bit over-excited about my journey. This is how to get places, I think, as I get out my book and start to drink my tea, I don’t get to do this when I’m driving. I reconsider selling my car and going everywhere by bike, bus or train. I am lost in the romantic appeal of public transport. That is, until it’s time to get off the train and back into the wind and rain.

With each step I take against the wind, I swear under my breath. My only recently dried out dress is soaked again in a matter of minutes, the flowers I’ve been carrying for my Grandma are becoming increasingly battered. I have no idea where to catch a bus to Newent from, but am still filled with an adventurous spirit.

I keep my sister informed of my progress via text message: “Am cold and soaked through. But alas! I have located the bus stop. Bus in 10 mins. See you soon.”

As the bus winds it’s way towards the my hometown I consider how doing things in a different way challenges us to learn new things. I’ve lived near Ledbury for most of my life without knowing where the bus to Newent goes from. I’ve arrived at the station countless times without knowing how to walk from there to the High Street (I’ve also been to the High Street countless times but always driven directly to both). I started to panic when I couldn’t find the bus stop and I didn’t have enough phone signal to look it up online. But then I remembered to ask someone – a real person, not somebody on twitter – and they pointed me in the right direction. I had actually forgotten about the kindness of strangers. I start to type these reminders on my phone: to foster an interest in my surroundings and to connect to actual people. But then I become too travel sick and have to stop.

There is enough of a walk from the bus stop to my house for me to get really wet again. When I arrive my sister pulls a sympathetic face and takes my bag. She unpacks it, hanging the damp clothes in the airing cupboard and laying out my electrical items on the dining table to dry.

“Isn’t it nice to have a mother,” says my Mum, watching my sister work. She pauses and takes a sip of her tea before adding, “Why didn’t you just call the RAC?”

Five things I love about camping

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1. Being outside, or almost outside, makes me feel more connected to what’s going on around me. Spend all day in a house and you don’t always notice what the weather is doing. When camping you’ll definitely notice if it’s sunny (the tent will be stiflingly hot) or raining (it will be loud and possibly leaking).

2. I like feeling cosy in a small space.

3. I like being forced not not carry much stuff, to live for a week with only the possessions I can put on my back.

4. Especially at a music festival (which, let’s face it, is the only time I ever find myself in a tent), camping is the perfect excuse to be a bit muddy, hairy and make-up free.

5. Coming home again. There is nothing like that first shower after a week at a festival, that first cup of tea out of a proper cup with non-UHT milk, or that first night being able to stretch out and snuggle up in your own bed.

Fear and Stories

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Fear is simultaneously an appalling and amazing thing. Nobody should have to fear for their life or the life of their family, and far too many people in the world do.

But a little fear can be a good thing. Fear of failure might motivate you to study for an exam. Fear of being alone might help you take the risk and ask someone on a date, or lean in for that first kiss. Fear of mediocrity might make you try harder at your job, or leave to follow your passion.

Me? I fear not having a story to tell. My life has been a little up and down since I graduated (and had the freedom to “design my own life”). During those past four years I’ve had six different homes, lived in two different countries and worked in four different jobs – plus six months travelling/volunteering and a brief sideline as a life model. I’ve fallen in love, made some of the most amazing friends and travelled to some spectacular places. I’ve also had a few unwise friendships, too many drunken mishaps and spent too much money.

But I don’t regret anything. Because when I meet up with someone I haven’t seen in a little while, and they ask me how I am, I always have a good story to tell, and I enjoy telling it (usually for laughs).

My greatest fear is that when someone says ‘What have you been up to?’ I answer ‘Not much.’ When that happens, I know it’s time to move on.